Back in 2019, Natalie Bergman was poised to step on to the stage at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with her brother Elliot and their band Wild Belle. It should’ve been a glorious night for the siblings, but before they could play even a single note, they received earth-shattering news: their father and stepmother had been killed by a drunk driver.
Bergman was especially close to her father, considering him her mentor and biggest fan, and his sudden death left her isolated and adrift. “We ended the tour immediately. It also seemed to kind of end my musical ambitions all at once,” she told NPR’s Simon Scott. “I felt as though I lost my identity with his death. I just didn’t really understand who I was.”
After months of grieving, Bergman decided to embrace her sense of isolation even more fully and visited a monastery in the remote California wilderness. During that time of silence, prayer, and reflection spent observing the monastery’s rituals and listening to the monks’ chants, music slowly began easing its way back into her life. Thus were sown the seeds for what would become Bergman’s first solo album, titled simply Mercy, which she wrote and self-produced. (Mercy was released last year on Jack White’s Third Man Records label.)
Mercy is often labeled a “gospel” album. Which makes sense if you agree with Bergman’s definition of gospel music as “finding salvation and hope in an otherwise hopeless time.” Throughout the album’s twelve songs, Bergman sings time and again of her desperate need for the Lord in the midst of death and sorrow. Her lyrics are frequently simple, straightforward, and unadorned, almost like a child’s prayers, and all the more powerful for it.
“Father, when I’m lost I come to You / You will fail me not / You will not forsake me,” she sings on Mercy‘s opening track, “Talk to the Lord.” Her frail voice sounds like it might give out at any moment, but it also possesses a simple, bedrock faith that allows her to sing “Though I’ve seen so many sorrows, I shall not be moved / Glory hallelujah, I will put my faith in You” with heart-wrenching conviction.
Musically, Mercy displays a delightful eclecticism, beginning with its gospel roots, but also weaving in elements of folk, reggae, funk, psychedelia, and, in the case of “Shine Your Light on Me,” girl groups from the ’60s like Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Backed by slick guitar riffs, gentle organ notes, and soulful backing vocals, Bergman sings “Come on shine Your light on me, sweet Jesus / I’ve been walking in shadows / Death follows me wherever I go,” before imploring the Lord, “I’ve been lost in the desert / Won’t You lead me into green pastures?”
Bergman ends “Shine Your Light on Me” with a simple exhortation: “Jesus will lift you up.” In another context, that might come across as cheesily optimistic (in that singular way that Christians unfortunately manage so well). Bergman, however, never once allows you to forget the pain and loss that drove her to write her songs.
Mercy is filled with praise for Bergman’s heavenly father, but it also serves as a love letter to her earthly father. And indeed, the album’s emotional heft comes from Bergman’s attempts to balance her belief in, and need for, a loving God with the horror and sorrow of her father’s death, which would seem to challenge the very notion of a loving God.
On “Home at Last,” Bergman asks God some pretty pointed questions as she tries to determine her father’s eternal fate (“Where have all the good people gone? / The people that I love / Have they gone to the Garden / Where the Tree of Life grows tall / And the weeping is no more?”) before sinking into a blues-y lament:
What is my sin, Lord? Where is my joy?
I am a motherless child
I have no father, he was my compass
He was the northern star
The song’s stripped down arrangements and production make Bergman’s lyrics all the more impactful. (That line about being “a motherless child” also takes on some additional weight once you know that Bergman lost her mother to brain cancer when she was just sixteen years old.)
“Your Love Is My Shelter” retells Bergman’s last time seeing her father in person. The lyrics are haunting as she notes the details of their time together, including his (sadly) prophetic words:
I miss your blue eyes that you gave to me
I see the white pines that you planted
Out on our last ride, what you said to me
That you won’t be here forever
Her conclusion is sobering, with language taken from C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed: “Your death is an amputation/In the hands of God, I feel homeless/And without you, I’m alone.”
We Christians tend to focus on Christ’s triumph over death, that death has been swallowed up in victory. And while that is true and can be a great comfort during trying times, it also risks inuring us to the reality of death. Death is devastation and it leaves nothing but grief and horror in its wake. Which is why Natalie Bergman’s Mercy—like recent albums from Nick Cave, Mount Eerie, and Sufjan Stevens—is a welcome and necessary corrective.
When Bergman sings “I’ll sing a ballad for the gloom / Of this wretched life / I claim no glory in my tune / We’re all born to die” (in a song titled, appropriately enough, “The Gallows”), it’s not melodramatic or mope-y, like some high school goth poetry. Rather, it’s the recognition of a stark truth: this side of eternity, we cannot outrun death. It will eventually claim everyone: our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves.
Fittingly enough, Mercy closes with “The Last Farewell,” arguably its starkest and most stripped down song. Bergman recounts the events of that fateful day in 2019 (“We never made it on to the stage / At the Radio City Music Hall”), her fears (“I don’t want to tell the others / I don’t want to be the messenger/With news that’ll make them cry”), and her attempts to cope (“I drank until I was delirious”). She confronts God (“Tell me, Heaven, where was your grace?”) and ultimately ends the song, and the album, with a single, sorrowful request: “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Natalie Bergman’s Mercy is nothing but gloom and doom. It’s an exceedingly sad album, to be sure, filled to the brim with Bergman’s hurt and longing. But it’s also filled with incredible love. Indeed, the reason it’s so sad—I dare you to listen without getting choked up at least once or twice—is precisely because of all that love. If Bergman’s songs weren’t so filled with love for both of her fathers, then I doubt they would hit so hard, or feel so universal.
But beneath all of the sorrow, and in the midst of Bergman’s tremulous voice and sparse production, a certain defiance can be heard.
Mercy is an exquisite expression of grief, but when Bergman sings “Though I am showered in despair / I am filled with hope,” it also serves as an equally stirring reminder that death, for all of its awfulness, does not have the final word. That even in the midst of sorrow, the Lord is here with us, and He is sovereign. (Or, to borrow another line from Bergman, “We all belong to Him / Jеsus is our friend.”) And above all, that there exists a transcendent reality so much sweeter and more real than anything we can experience in this world, and not even death can ruin it.